"Attention, everyone, this is your captain. We hope you've enjoyed your interstellar flight from Alpha Caeli. We'll be landing on Achernar Tertius in approximately twenty minutes. At this time, due to the unique conditions, we do require that all passengers return to their seats …"
The announcement waking her, Archeologist Nosuma Okande sighed, the trip nearly over. She wondered what conditions the pilot referred to, wanting to ask the stewardess but reluctant. The flight hadn't started well.
Nosuma's view from the middle seat consisted of the seat back in front of her and the backs of several heads, nearly all having straight, lifeless hair, so unlike her thick black curls. She counted herself among five individuals of African ancestry on the flight. An isolated planet in the Achernar subsystem adjacent to Triangulum Australe, Achernar Tertius sat above the galactic plane like some abandoned stepchild.
Nosuma wasn't terribly happy with the position she'd taken. Known to its primarily African inhabitants as Babwe, Achernar Tertius was considered a relative backwater among archeology sites along the Perseus Arm. And if the flight hadn't begun so badly …
Among the first to board, the seats unassigned, Nosuma had chosen an aisle seat three-quarters of the way back and had read her Archeology journal while the cabin had filled. Someone had taken the window seat, leaving the middle seat free, while a similar configuration had assembled itself in the row in front of hers. Inevitably, minutes before departure, last to board was a couple, the last two seats beside Nosuma and the seat directly in front of it.
The couple exchanged a glance, looked at the two seats, and then looked at the stewardess. "Is there any way we could sit together?"
"The seats aren't assigned, Sir, my apologies."
The couple again glanced at each other, and then the man said as if addressing a group, "My wife and I would like to sit together, please."
No one moved, and no one looked at them.
The couple looked at the stewardess, as if expecting her to do something.
"I'm not able to ask anyone to move, Sir."
The lady looked at the four people seated around the two empty seats and cleared her throat. "Forgive me, but my husband and I are going on our honeymoon, and we would like to sit together, please."
Again, no one moved. Only Nosuma looked at them.
"The flight is preparing to depart," the stewardess said. "You're welcome to have a seat in the available spaces, or you can take the next flight. Which would you like to do?"
The couple exchanged a glance but neither moved.
"My wife and I would like to sit together, please," the gentleman said. His voice hadn't changed, but it was clear to Nosuma that he was willing to cause a delay in their departure.
"This flight isn't able to accommodate that, Sir. You'll need to take the next flight."
"I'll move," Nosuma said, standing and moving into the aisle.
Once everyone was settled, Nosuma in the middle seat, the woman leaned over from the row behind her.
"I just want to say thank you. I'm Lucy Muluba, short for Lusiba. Your kindness won't be forgotten."
"You're welcome, Lucy." Nosuma wondered at the other woman's name, her features Caucasian. "Are you Babwean? Your name certainly sounds like it."
"I am by adoption, yes. And you?"
Nosuma introduced herself, and they shook. "Enjoy your honeymoon." She could feel the stewardess's baleful glare, the red seat-belt sign flashing imminently.
The woman had then sat down, and Nosuma didn't exchange another word with them throughout the ten-hour flight, sleeping and reading by turns.
Now, the flight ending, she tidied her tiny space in preparation for landing. Nosuma saw something in the seat-back pocket right in front of her, wondering why she hadn't seen it before.
Slim, a half-inch through, just the top protruding above the pocket edge, the pole sculpture was instantly recognizable. The rounded top was carved with intricate interwoven lines, representing braids. Nosuma already knew what the remainder looked like, even before she reached for it. A female procreation figurine, with face, breasts, and abdomen vaguely emphasized, and the pubic area highly detailed.
She grasped it between her thumb and forefinger, and the interstellar ship fell away.
The vast interior plateau of Babwe's major continent spread before her, a single chain of mountains to the west, the plains extending nearly all the way to the eastern seaboard, spidery branches of two major rivers splayed across the mostly-grasslands terrain, barely a tenth of it forested. Bright points glowed across the plain, like cities at night.
The Zimbabwe, or as translated from Shona, "Large houses of stone." The archeological sites Nosuma had come to study.
She knew she was seeing far more sites on the plains below her than any map would indicate. She gasped and let go of the pole sculpture.
The passenger cabin snapped back into place around her. The ship shuddered as it entered the Babwean atmosphere, the wings outside the window aglow with the heat of reentry.
She snatched the figurine from the seat back pocket and slipped it into her bag, but as quick as she was, the figurine still jerked her from the cabin briefly.
What is that thing? she wondered, sweat beading on her forehead.
"Are you all right, miss?" the stewardess said.
"Fine, thank you. Touch of anxiety, is all," Nosuma said, not meeting the woman's gaze. The stewardess continued down the aisle, checking seatbelts and trays.
The flight landed without incident.
Standing to disembark, the couple invited her to deplane first. Nosuma saw the woman glance at the pocket where the pole sculpture had been.
After gathering her luggage in the terminal, Nosuma approached the couple. "How was your flight?"
"Quite pleasant, thanks to you," the gentleman said. "Greatly appreciated, your changing seats to accommodate us, Ms. Okande."
"You're welcome," Nosuma said, nodding. She looked directly at the woman. "I'm grateful for the little gift, Lucy, something I'm sure to treasure."
Lucy Muluba's eyes widened. "Gift? What gift?"
"The pole carving? The figurine in the seat-back pocket in front of me?"
Again, Lucy looked at her blankly, shaking her head. "I don't know what you're referring to."
Nosuma dug into her bag. "This little mother-goddess figurine…" She didn't see it and dug a little farther. "Don't know where it went. Braided hair, carved from teak." She saw the woman's complete bewilderment. Did I just imagine it all? Nosuma wondered, becoming uncomfortable, sure she put it in her bag in the outside pocket right beside her blush compact, the only two items in that pocket. Now there was only one item, the compact.
"Sorry, uh, I must have been dreaming. Very nice to meet you, enjoy your honeymoon," she said and abruptly took her leave, heading for the terminal entrance.
In the hovertaxi, en route to the hotel, Nosuma checked her bag again.
The figurine was tucked under her blush compact.
She stared at it, knowing there was no way she could have missed it in the outer pocket, leaving her with only one conclusion: It hadn't wanted to be found.
That's ridiculous, she told herself.
Nosuma looked over the map on the wall, where five excavation sites were marked, edifices of stone abandoned by the native people some six hundred years before the restoration of interstellar travel. Not one percent of the number she'd seen entering the atmosphere, when she'd first touched the figurine.
She sat in the corridor outside the office of her new supervisor, Otiji Benguela, dressed uncomfortably in skirt, blouse, jacket, and pumps, the clothes insubstantial. Slender to the point of skinny and just five-five, Nosuma didn't have the figure for business formal. She couldn't wait to get into her khaki digs and get out to the Zimbabwes, spread across the main continent on Achernar Tertius. In her tool satchel at her feet was a pair of boots, but she hadn't brought khakis, not on her first day.
Institute Headquarters was utilitarian in design, its purpose to support the teams at the dig sites. The speckled tile showed wear in the center, buildup along the edges. The off-white ceilings might have once been brighter, dust and time having tinged the paint. The waist-high wainscoting was chipped and scored from specimen carts. A patina of dust speckled the light fixtures, lintels, and picture frames.
Through the supervisor's door she heard voices. "There's little more here to be found. Why bring her on? It's Chaos throwing his weight around, butting heads with the board, I tell you."
"Keep your voice down, for Mwari's sake. She's out in the corridor."
"Chaos" was Doctor Tugulu Kaonde, Chief Archeologist at the Institute, called such behind his back for multiple reasons, primarily his blizzard of journal articles, books, and vids on the Zimbabwes. Doctor Kaonde had also peer-reviewed Nosuma's doctoral dissertation.
The door opened, and two men came out.
Nosuma stood, trying to act as if she hadn't overheard.
"Doctor Okande, I presume?" said the taller man in a pretentious English accent, mocking a famous event on Earth. "I'm Otiji Benguela, and this is Laurentius Sese Nyari, President of Shumba Industries, a member of our board of directors."
"President Nyari, a pleasure to meet you," she said, extending her hand.
He shook. "Pleased, Doctor Okande. I pray you find Babwe as exciting as Doctor Kaonde paints it."
"I'm sure I will. The view from the incoming flight was magnificent."
"See any aliens, Doctor?" Nyari asked. "According to a small group of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, Babwe was occupied by aliens some millennia ago."
"No sightings from space," she replied. "Any chance I might happen upon an artifact or two, President Nyari?"
"No one has yet, Doctor Okande. Thanks for your time, Mr. Benguela," Nyari said to the other man. "I'll see you soon, I'm sure, Doctor Okande." And he strode down the corridor.
"Come in, Doctor Okande, pardon the delay." Otiji led her into his office, where another map hung on the wall, similar to the one in the corridor.
She sat across from his desk, setting her satchel at her feet. "I'm sure there are a hundred formalities to get through, but I want to know whether you received my message."
"I did, Doctor Okande." Otiji Benguela frowned at her, his eyebrows climbing his forehead. "That's an unusual request, Doctor. Why twelve-hour shifts? Nearly everyone else works eight-hour days."
"Simply put, I can get more done, Mr. Benguela," she replied, making an effort to keep her eyes on him. Her gaze kept going to the map and the paucity of sites marked upon it.
"Are you sure, Doctor? The work is grueling, quite a contrast to research, content analysis, and the like."
Nosuma gazed at him, seeing little of the weathering common to their ilk, who spent year after year in the trenches. The amusing phrase, a legacy from a bitterly fought war on the planet Earth some two centuries before the diaspora, had fallen out of common use but was still in vogue among archeologists and excavation crews, its literal meaning highly relevant to their profession. The man across from her bore little sign he spent any time in the trenches, his face baby-skin smooth, his hands soft, his fingernails clean.
Hers weren't much different. She saw him glance at his bookshelf, where a copy of her dissertation sat, protruding from among the other literature as if recently consulted. A hard-bound copy, she thought, Benguela still adheres to the old ways. Print editions were extremely expensive, bulky, and difficult to find. Two and a half years of her life had gone into its composition, and four years of university curriculum before that. Definitely not the grueling work to be found in the trenches, but grueling in its own way.
She held up her hands. "Many a night I soaked these hands in cold water, they were so sore and swollen from research, content analysis, and the like. Yes, Mr. Benguela, I'm sure."
He blinked at her and sighed. "Very well. I'll see if I can find a crew who'll be willing to work such hours."
"I appreciate that, Mr. Benguela. Where will I be starting out?"
"First, I'm going to have you orient with Doctor Kaonde, our Director of Research. He's fluent in Shona and negotiates labor contracts with the local villages. Perhaps he can help you find a twelve-hour crew."
"Doctor Chaos," she said, as he was known in academia, his research brilliant but his writing style somewhat prone to chaotic elaboration.
Otiji blanched and coughed. "Not a welcome moniker, Doctor Okande, something I'd suggest you keep to yourself if you wish to preserve the integrity of your anatomy."
Dr. Kaonde also had a reputation for an acerbic wit and an intolerance for ineptitude.
"Too late, Mr. Benguela. He was one of the peer reviewers." She threw a glance at her dissertation.
"Oh? And what part of your anatomy are you missing?" Otiji smirked. "He was quite gracious when it was announced you were joining us."
"Grooming me for slaughter, I'm sure."
The man across from her suppressed a laugh. "He'll be here in an hour. In the meantime, Sesotho in HR has a few formalities to review with you, and a hundred or so forms to sign. Good day."
Nosuma hadn't told Otiji the real reason for her request. Three twelve-hour days would give her four days at a stretch to do some exploring on her own. But he doesn't need to know that, she thought.
She spent a perfectly good hour pushing a stylus across a signature pad. Sesotho kept apologizing for the inordinate number of forms to be signed, and the experience might have been less onerous if he hadn't stammered his every word.
"You're here, finally!" Dr. Kaonde shouted from the doorway. "We hired you six months ago. What took you so damned long!?"
Nosuma realized he really didn't want an answer. "You're here, finally! What took you so damned long?" She stood and shook his hand, imitating his accent. "Thank you, Doctor, for such an effusive and memorable welcome—and for sparing me more of Sesotho's drudgery. Oh, and it's a pleasure to see you again, incidentally. Shall we go? I'm looking to put some miles between my backside and that awful chair. Thank you, Sesotho, you've perfected the art of toil!" And she was out the door before either could object, satchel in hand.
"Don't you want to change into digs?" Kaonde asked, catching up with her in the corridor, looking over her skirt, blouse, jacket, and pumps.
"Just going to tour a site, right?"
"You won't get far in those pumps."